One of the most jarring aspects of this college football offseason is the enormous disparity between the current situation in College Station, Texas, and the circus atmosphere everyone was exposed to last year.
It wasn't so long ago that Texas A&M couldn't get itself out of the news cycle as the program on the rise, with a high-profile, Heisman-winning quarterback and a win over Alabama leading to a preseason top-10 ranking and the highest expectations in years. Of course, the Aggies fell short, slipping to 9-4 as Johnny Manziel flirted with injuries in the second half of the season and the SEC's worst defense kept the spirit of the defunct WAC alive.
Now, the conversation has changed dramatically as spring practice gets underway. Manziel is headed to the NFL, the Aggies will not hold a spring game because of renovations to Kyle Field and their roster is filled with youthful anonymity. For the first time since Manziel announced himself to the world against Alabama in 2012, Texas A&M has returned to the background of the national college football landscape, out of the news and quietly occupying familiar territory as one of the sport's most obvious sleeping giants.
But that doesn't mean we should stop paying attention. So what if last year wasn't the breakout many expected? Even with Manziel at quarterback, it may, surprisingly, turn out to be the low point of the Kevin Sumlin era.
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Manziel's success came out of nowhere. Two years ago, as Sumlin replaced Mike Sherman as head coach, the Aggies had a quarterback controversy in which Jameill Showers was the favorite to win the job over the former three-star recruit Manziel. We all know what happened next: Manziel won the job in August, then became the first freshman Heisman winner in history as the Aggies won double-digit games for the first time since 1998. Showers transferred to UTEP, while Manziel's fame skyrocketed and brought him into overblown tabloid and NCAA controversy on top of the eye-popping on-field accomplishments.
Finding another Manziel is impossible, but Texas A&M is more than capable of continuing to rack up points while adapting to a new foundation. A protégé of Dana Holgorsen, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital came most recently from West Virginia, where the Mountaineers operated one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country in his final year (2012) behind Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Sumlin, meanwhile, initially learned from Joe Tiller, who brought "basketball on grass" to the Big Ten, and then as head coach oversaw a Houston offense in which Case Keenum completed 71 percent of his passes for 5,631 yards in 2011.
Manziel was a luxury, elevating the rest of the team as the game's greatest improviser, but a player of his remarkable, unique skillset is not needed to make A&M's version of the Air Raid offense move. So of all the quarterback battles in college football this offseason, none may be more intriguing than Texas A&M's. Three players are vying for what's an impossible job of replacing Manziel but also an appealing position of playing point guard in a prolific system:
Matt Joeckel, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior, has played sparingly in his career, starting last year's opener against Rice when Manziel was suspended for a half. He completed 14-of-19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown before going on to attempt only 18 more passes the rest of the season. He obviously has the experience edge, but Texas A&M would be better off with him as the veteran backup while looking toward the future.
Kenny Hill, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore, was Rivals' No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in 2013. The most Manziel-like of the Aggies' options, Hill completed 16-of-22 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in third-string, mop-up duty as a true freshman. While nobody is the improvisational running threat Manziel was, Hill can move, and he played in a similar offense in high school. Based on a combination of talent, upside and experience, he's probably the slight favorite for the job, at least on paper.
Kyle Allen, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound early enrollee was Rivals' top-rated pro-style QB in the class that just signed. Allen is the offense's most Keenum- or Geno Smith-like option, as the polished passer whose way ahead of the curve as a true freshman.
Joeckel is a nice backup plan, and we've certainly been surprised by Sumlin's Texas A&M quarterback race before, but it's hard to imagine a scenario that doesn't end with Hill or Allen as the starter, because one or both are the future of the program.
The good news for all three is that Manziel's two years were sort of a false start, the hype surrounding him obscuring the major deficiencies elsewhere. Sumlin has been adapting Sherman's roster to his system while coordinator Mark Snyder attempts to reshape a defense that has experienced significant turnover the last few years. Year three is often the time you can really start evaluating a new coach, because the players he has recruited will start cycling into the depth chart, which means that now we can begin to get a clearer picture of the program's direction.
Sumlin signed the nation's No. 11 recruiting class according to Rivals.com in 2013, then hauled in the No. 6 class in February. Texas A&M may not have Manziel, or star receiver Mike Evans for that matter, but there's an infusion of young talent on the way, and if several of those pieces hit, Texas A&M has the makings of a diversified, high-powered attack.
The Aggies' last two recruiting classes have netted seven four- or five-star receivers, according to Rivals, including potential standouts Ricky Seals-Jones -- who missed most of last year with an injury -- Ja'Quay Williams and LaQuvionte Gonzalez from the class of 2013 and new signees Speedy Noil and Frank Iheanacho. The backfield remains deep with running back talent that took a backseat to Manziel last year, with Trey Williams, Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and Tra Carson all entering their junior seasons. The offensive line, even with the loss of another top-10 pick in Jake Matthews, returns four starters and should be one of the team's strengths again. And last year's thin, horrific defense, which struggled mightily to replace All-America pass rusher Damontre Moore, had a staggering 10 freshmen on the two-deep and loses only two seniors.
In other words, there's nowhere but up to go on defense, and while the offense can't possibly reach the highs of the Manziel-Evans combination, it will likely diversify and continue to move the ball at will, because that's what a Sumlin offense does: Since 2006, when he became Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, every offense he's been associated with has finished in the top-20 nationally in scoring, with five in the top five.
While Sumlin is a charismatic, aggressive recruiter who was bound to attract talent to Texas A&M, Manziel's rise to prominence helped open the floodgates. Really, Manziel -- a Sherman recruit -- was only the prelude to what Texas A&M under Sumlin can be.
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Texas A&M has sort of an odd history, perpetually fighting to be perceived as more than just the No. 2 program, at best, in the state. With perhaps college football's most passionate and loyal fan base behind it, the program has always been a sleeping giant, and the renovated Kyle Field -- which will seat 102,500 people when completed -- will be one of the crown jewels of the game. Even with Texas presumably back on the rise under Charlie Strong, Baylor establishing itself as a formidable and innovative presence, Texas Tech aiming to recapture its magic as the state's outcast star under Kliff Kingsbury and TCU posing a threat in the Big 12 now, there's every reason for Texas A&M to succeed, instead of slipping back into the shadows, where it has accumulated only 11 top-10 finishes ever -- and just six since Bear Bryant's final year in 1957.
A deep-pocketed NFL team remains a potential obstacle, given the success of charismatic former college coach Pete Carroll and the innovative Chip Kelly, but for now at least, Sumlin is armed with a new six-year, $30 million contract. Not that contracts mean anything, but all indications are Sumlin is happy in the college game in the short run. Five million per year may seem like a lot for someone coming off a four-loss season, but Texas A&M is wisely, aggressively betting on the future, that Sumlin's combination of recruiting prowess and offensive success will propel the Aggies to consistent heights for the first time in a long time.
In the brutal SEC West, it will certainly be difficult, and immediate College Football Playoff contention in 2014 is too much to ask barring another miracle at quarterback. But while College Station may be much quieter with Manziel gone, depriving Texas A&M of the biggest star in program history, it's important to keep watching. Because in reality, the best of the program as a whole is yet to come.
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